ANALYSIS: Public Awareness - Repairing the UK stake in the world meat market. The lifting of the European ban on British beef is a victory for the Meat and Livestock Commission, but the hard work of persuading consumers to buy meat again is yet to come

With this week’s lifting of the 1996 ban on exporting British beef, the UK meat marketing industry is turning its energies to the task of restoring consumer confidence in its products at home and abroad.

With this week’s lifting of the 1996 ban on exporting British beef,

the UK meat marketing industry is turning its energies to the task of

restoring consumer confidence in its products at home and abroad.



Reduced sales in its home market and the ban on exports have cost the

UK’s meat and livestock industry an estimated pounds 520 million. A

survey last month indicated UK household consumption has fallen 14 per

cent since 1995.



The BSE crisis has not simply affected sales of beef. The Meat and

Livestock Commission (MLC), the lead organisation for marketing British

red meat worldwide, has also had to deal with evidence that BSE has

affected sheep.



With an estimated six months to go before the lifting of the ban comes

into effect, the meat industry is shifting its strategy from crisis

management to considering how to target consumers.



Last week, the MLC announced it was reviewing its lobbying and corporate

and crisis PR accounts, held by Shandwick and Bell Pottinger

respectively.



Now that lobbying to lift the ban has succeeded, the commission is

likely to take the cost-saving move of consolidating its account with

one agency.



The commission has not decided yet whether to recruit a consumer PR

agency to help restore beef sales to their pre-scare levels, but over

the past year it has been busy preparing the ground for a marketing

drive. Promotional activity to date has been focused largely on key

opinion-formers, rather than targeted directly at the consumer.



Nicky O’Reilly, head of corporate communications at the MLC, explains:

’We are working with international journalists to get the message out

that there is a change in the standard of British meat. We have taken UK

scientists abroad to talk to different people; we most recently went

with Nick Brown and the British ambassador to speak to the Spanish

agricultural minister. In short, we are trying to influence the

industry, the media, government and consumer organisations to get

positive publicity.’



Within the UK, the MLC has also toured schools and local authorities in

an effort to convince them that British meat is safe.



But no amount of lobbying or wooing of journalists could have restored

confidence without proof that safety standards were being improved. To

this end, in 1997, the commission and the Ministry of Agriculture,

Fisheries and Food established the certification agency, Assured British

Meat.



Made up of industry and consumer representatives, the agency will ensure

that minimum standards for the production of beef for sale to retailers

and caterers have been met, in exchange for which it will award its kite

mark.



ABM hopes to set up the kitemark system by the end of 1999 and it will

be used by all participating retailers. Standards cover all stages of

production from feeding to farming and slaughter, and will build on the

existing passport system that details the genealogy of animals, enabling

diseases to be traced. So far, 80 per cent of farmers and retailers have

signed up.



But moves to create a more independent, wide-ranging and powerful safety

body have been thwarted. Proposals to set up a Food Standards Agency

were dropped from last month’s Queen’s speech, and so are unlikely to be

implemented in the next year.



The focus of the campaign on the Continent, and at home, will continue

to be safety.



Jon McLeod, public affairs director at Shandwick, says: ’We hope that

there is a residue of goodwill in the European market. But people that

are genuinely fearful are probably irredeemably so. Our objective, and

the objective of British meat, is to give assurance that all safety

measures are in place.’



The first tentative signs of recovery have begun to appear over the past

year. Sales of red meat have risen by five per cent in the UK since

1997, although the reasons for this could be scare fatigue and the

temptation of low prices as much as a new confidence in meat safety. In

fact the commission has very little information about what consumer

attitudes to beef are, particularly on the Continent.



Before designing its consumer PR strategy, the commission will have to

gauge the likely public reaction to any consumer campaign.



’We are researching current attitudes and when we discover what customer

concerns actually are we will start,’ says O’Reilly. ’Of course, we

cannot expect the previous markets to simply open the doors for us

straight away,’ she adds. ’We know that in certain countries, like

Germany, we still have a challenge, but our suppliers in Europe have not

abandoned us, especially those in France and Italy, where we had our

biggest export markets.’



At this stage there is an unnerving level of uncertainty about consumer

reactions in international markets towards the resumption of British

beef exports. And, while significant work has been carried out in terms

of establishing safety measures and communicating these to opinion

formers and media, it is only in the UK that any kind of grassroots work

has been undertaken.



The research into consumer attitudes now commissioned is not before

time, and it is only these results that will allow the commission to

formulate any reasonable strategy.



Simon Rayner, PR manager at farming lobby group the National Farmers

Union, suggests that it might be helpful to bring in a consumer

specialist agency. Indeed, having spent so long with its sights fixed on

the EU, the MLC, and any PR agency it appoints, now needs to get to

grips with the fact that consumer fears are often less than

rational.



Any consumer campaign will need to address these anxieties at a very

fundamental level.



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